The Plot against America by Philip Roth

The Plot against America is probably not what would be regarded as a typical Philip Roth novel. There is little sex or sweating in it likely to offend anyone. It is in part an 'alternative history', imagining what might have happened in the USA had Franklin Roosevelt been defeated in the 1940 presidential election by Charles Lindbergh, the weathly, handsome, personable and still relatively young aviator who had captured national attention by his solo flight across the Atlantic, and who won widespread sympathy when his small son was kidnapped and murdered. Lindbergh has many charismatic qualities, but in the book, as apparently in real life, he also displays significant anti-Semitic tendencies and a relatively tolerant attitude towards the German Third Reich.

But this is not just a political novel. It is told through the eyes of a partly fictional child, Philip Roth, a young Jewish boy growing up in an America which is gradually becoming a less and less attractive place in which to be a Jew. The novel is at one level a bildungsroman, and the family at its core, Philip, his older brother Sandy, and his parents Bess and Hermann, are vividly and convincingly created. There is clearly a limited autobiographical element - Philip in the novel was born in the same year as the novelist and haa a similar name and background. At one level this is a story of growing up in a Jewish enviornment at the time the novelist himself was growing up. By no means everything that happens in the family is the result of the political enviornment outdoors (though we do see its influences impact on the family and on its personal relationships).

Roth displays considerable skill in making his early 1940s America seem real. I particularly enjoyed the evocation of the family's big but sadly half-spoilt holiday in Washington. The gradual development of the anti-Semitism seems very well portrayed: we are not presented with Nazi Germany thinly disguised as America, Things start gradually and in ways that could be seem as innocuous. Some of the initiatives, such as 'encouraging' Jews to leave areas domianted by Jews and scatter among the rest of the community in rural areas, are shown to be supported by some members of the Jewish community, incluiding a leading rabbi, who seem prone to flattery and blind to their more sinister implications. Roth's world, with radio as the dominant communication and entertainment medium, and stamp collecting an obsession for small boys, seems convincingly real.

The book does have weaknesses. The ending, which sees Lindbergh mysteriously disappear after taking off on a solo flight and Roosevelt return to power, is not at all convincing. One critical has compared it to the deus ex machina said to be used to tie up opera plots in earlier centuries. An interest in the politics of the time would probably be an asset is one wished to enjoy the novel.

The novel has apparently been seen as a roman a clef about the George W. Bush administration, of which Roth was an open critic. Those who take this view note inter alia that the more forceful and unpleasant characters are those around the president, such as the vice president, rather than Lindbergh himself. However, Roth has denied the validity of this interpretation, and I cannot say the idea crossed my mind until I read some criticisms of the novel (which has been praised as one of Roth's best written works in years but damned as dull and as maligning the dead, Catholics, middle America, etc.)